After 12 years as group head sommelier at the iconic The Fat Duck in Bray, Isa Bal MS left to set up his own place, with chef Jonny Lake. Trivet has an award-winning wine list organized by era, focusing heavily on the wines of Georgia, Armenia, his native Turkey, Lebanon and Greece. This makes him the ideal person to speak to about the ‘new Greek’ wines that are fast winning fans here in the UK.
I visited him at Trivet to taste through some new arrivals on The Sourcing Table.
There’s a buzz about Greek wine in the UK. I asked Isa why this is.
Isa Bal (IB): In markets like the UK, customers are always willing to give a new wine a go, at least once. Greece is seen as the mother of western culture, so there is already a huge sympathy there, and many people have good memories of holidays in Greece. Plus, the established wine countries have seen a huge increase in prices, countries like Greece were waiting in the wings to fill in the gap that was created.
Jamie Goode (JG): With your wine list, you have done something unique, organizing it by era. What era would Greek wines come in at?
IB: It’s not an exact date, but we are looking at around 4500 BC. The oldest winemaking area in Greece is Crete, Northern Greece also has a long history. They are almost the same era as Lebanon and Palestine.
JG: So shall we look at the wines? This first is Kyrenia 2020 PGI Achaia. It’s 100% Roditis – a pink skinned grape which is thought to have originated on the island of Rhodes - from two organic high altitude vineyards in the northern Peloponnese.
IB: This is nice and dry. There is probably some lees contact here. It gives it a nice richness. It has this lovely strong fruit characteristic. There’s some greengage and fresh almond coming at the end.
JG: I love the texture in the mouth: it has a vitality to it, with a fine grained texture.
Jamie - For me, this is an exciting style of wine. It has freshness and also personality, it’s not just a simple acid bomb, it has some salinity.
IB: Definitely. As you know, Roditis is one of the main varieties of retsina. I’m not dissing restina, but this is the way to go. It’s also a good food wine: a glass of this would be great with fish dishes like grilled sea bream.
JG: I also like that this is just 12% alcohol.
IB: 12% is the magic number. As soon as you go beyond 13%, it becomes an issue, even if some producers can keep the freshness.
JG: The second wine is a Robola from Cephalonia, made by Sarris Winery. The grapes are from ungrafted vines. It’s made by Panos Sarris, a sommelier from Athens who returned to his home island of Cephalonia to open a restaurant, and make wine. The vines he makes this from come from his wife’s family.
IB: This is a bit more serious. There’s very well managed reduction, and there might be some oak here. In every respect this is a very well-made wine, and there’s lots of character to it. It’s a beautiful wine.
JG: I love the concentration on the palate. It is rich without being blowsy, and has freshness. I like the way the acidity feels in the mouth.
The third wine is an Assyrtiko from Vassaltis in Santorini.
IB: It has lovely intensity, and on the nose there’s lots going on. There are beautiful fruit aromas. It’s clean, and very well balanced with lovely acidity, and this offsets the alcohol. There’s a zingy finish, which is cleansing. It works really well, and this is why Assyrtiko has become Greek’s most well known variety.
Isa - love Assyrtiko. I think all three whites are lovely wines.
This first red is a blend of local varieties, organically farmed, from mountain vineyards. It’s called Antiphon 2020.
IB This is unoaked with a beautiful fruit intensity, and nice crunchy fruit. Whether you are drinking red or white, wine should be refreshing. This wine has that lovely red fruit, and a little bit of earthiness and minerality coming through.
JG: And it’s not jammy, is it? I like the definition of the fruit. It a beautiful primary wine.
IB: It is the first time I’ve tasted a blend of these varieties. My brain is having fun, meeting something new.
Isa -One of the things I like about Greek wine is that we have all these grape varieties that tend to have unique taste profiles. There is an element of discovery.
JG: I like the freshness, and the fact that there’s a bit of grip.
IB: it has lovely balance.
JG: The next wine is the Tetramythos Mavro Kalavrytino Natur 2020. This has no added sulfites and weighs in at a very friendly 12.5% alcohol. This is quite different.
IB: There is certainly a depth of aroma that intrigues you, and you just want to go back to it again. There is an element of greenness, an element of ripe fruit, some dark fruit.
JG: It is a little spicy and gamey, and there’s a little wildness there. It’s juicy and supple.
IB: It is clean: there is nothing funky about it. Especially now, there are wines that are way funkier and are considered fine. This is mainstream in this sense.
Isa - In a way, it reminds of Crozes-Hermitage, with some blood notes.
This variety is a bit like Xinomavro in that the tannins are on the higher side. This gives this wine grip that you want to be there. So the tannins are working nicely. It’s a brilliant food wine. There’s also some nice fruit in this wine, like black cherry and morello cherry. There’s a lot going on here. It is my kind of wine.
JG: The last wine is more familiar territory: a Xinomavro from Naoussa.
IB: The 2017s I have tasted from northern Greece have been brilliant.
JG: What do think the appeal of Xinomavro is? Do you think it has the potential to make the breakthrough as Greece’s red grape, just as Assyrtiko has made the breakthrough as Greece’s top white?
IB: Assytriko’s breakthrough is mainly in restaurants and specialist wine shops. You don’t see many on supermarket shelves. Xinomavro is not far behind in that sense. Everyone in the wine industry understands and knows the high quality and potential of Xinomavro. The issue with Assyrtiko from Santorini is that it’s an island and there’s a limited amount they can produce. If you look at northern Greece, in the appellations where Xinomavro is grown, vineyard ownership is similar to Piedmont or Burgundy, in that it is fragmented into small plots. So to expect a large number of bottles to be made by a single producer is not realistic. I believe these wines are always going to be restaurant and independent merchant wines. If you look at Grüner Veltliner, that started in restaurants and independent merchants, and now every supermarket has a couple of Grüners. But I am not sure this will be the case for Assyrtiko and Xinomavro, unless the production scale changes.
JG: This is interesting: it has some tannin but it is not high tannin, and it has really textured silky fruit. It has the edges that Xinomavro is known for, but they are weaved into a silky core.
IB: Definitely. There are different styles of Xinomavro, and there are some producers making more approachable styles that are enjoyable young. This has attractive aromatics and beautifully balanced tannic structure. I love the variety.
JG: In conclusion, are you quite hopeful about the ‘new Greece’?
IB: Absolutely. I think that from a restaurant point of view these are wines that can give value and new experiences to customers.
A huge thank you to Isa Bal MS for hosting us at Trivet. The restaurant is an oasis of Scandi-style calm between Bermondsey and Borough Market, Isa's list was awarded the Special Jury Prize by UK Star Wine List this year, and it goes without saying the menu from ex- Fat Duck chef Jonny Lake is also winning plaudits.